Month: March 2014

55 Classics Review #2 – “The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton


I get a little disappointed when I think about G.K. Chesterton.

I’m disappointed because the man was a force of sheer genius in almost every approach to the written word. Sadly, he is remembered for a very small portion of his prolific work, and what’s worse is he is often thought of simply as some guy who inspired some other guys people still really like. I do not intend to demean his most reputed works, but to reveal him as a far more expansive and influential catalist in British literature. Lets take a look at what some other people had to say about him.

Chesterton was “a man of colossal genius.” – George Bernard Shaw

“I cannot think of a single comic poem by Chesterton that is not a triumphant success.”

and

“When he is really enthrall we with a subject he is brilliant, without any doubt one of the finest aphorists in English Literature.” – W. H. Auden

“There is no better critic of Dickens living than Chesterton.” – T. S. Eliot

“[Chesterton] had a genius simply for having original ideas. . . It is hardly possible to read a page of Chesterton without finding an unexpected idea, at best wise, at worst fiendishly ingenious” – Wilfred Sheed, concerning the author’s essays.

“He was spontaneously witty, but he could also be carefully epigrammatic. He thought of words not as neutral rational counters, but as confetti, bonbons, artillery.” -Anthony Burgess

“The man is exuberant, so disrespectful to the learned, so deadsure, so comic where most serious.” – Maisie Ward

“Chesterton was a brilliant philosophical journalist. . .The range of talent was almost alarming. . .[He] was simply what the word ‘genius’ meant” – Wilfrid Sheed

But I’m afraid I’ve lost the plot. Back to the book.

All of these great statements about Chesterton do serve well to help illustrate the qualities found in The Man Who Was Thursday. While the book is less than 200 pages long, it is by no means a light read. It is dense with constant wit and aphorisms and is, according to the author’s subtitle, a nightmare. It is an extremely dense nightmare.

The book can best be split into three sections. Like a dream, however, the fluidity with which these segments flow together makes it impossible to recognize where the transitions take place until after they have happened. The book starts out as a very logical, philosophical and political debate between a poet of chaos/anarchy/nihilism and a poet of order/law/God. This is set within the realm of artistic community and at the pace of a detective novel. Things are reassuringly lucid at this point. The story becomes somewhat comic in sequence from the get-go, then at some point near the middle of the novel the reader pauses, looks wonderingly at the large portion of completed text in his left hand, and wonders when the story changed so drastically into a bizarre, Kafka nightmare. Everything has gone from a jaunty, shocking little narrative to to a heavy and incomprehensible nightmare world. Just as the reader begins to mentally threaten to drop the book for sheer emotional exhaustion, the story turn more whimsical and philosophically complex that ever before and suddenly all of the original questions of politicking and law-and-order are turned on their heads to be the real questions at the center of both the universe and ever individual’s struggle against it. In the end, questions are compounded and ideas of answers are hinted at, then all is left behind like a bad (or wonderful) dream.

Throughout all this the novel is decidedly Chesterton as described further above. The more serious the subject matter at hand, the more whimsical his writing. He has all the witty epigrammatic skills attributed to the Benjamin Franklins and the Winston Churchills of the world. He seems always to be poking fun at everyone, so that his opponent may be made the more furious even as he mocks his own inconsistencies. His main character Syme is distinctly like he himself as the narrator. While the other characters may be optimists or pessimists or anarchists or madmen, both narrator and protagonist take a light and poetic view that seems always to look at the bigger picture and remain almost in the third person for their seeming lack of personal pride at their own conclusions.

The book, among other Chesterton, has been compared to Kafka. He himself has even been called the anti-Kafka. Kafka read The Man Who Was Thursday and remarked “He is so gay, one might almost believe he has found God.” This is a great insight, because Kafka and Chesterton view the world from much the same standing, coming to drastically differing conclusions. Both men view the universe as a terrible and isolating empty space full to the brim with suffocating questions, yet their opposite tones display a response that could not be more drastically different. Kafka refused to be comforted or to believe in community. His comfort is in being honest about the horrors he feels, even in embracing them. The Man Who Was Thursday shows us clearly that Chesterton believed that isolation is an illusion and the source of a large majority of our unfounded fears. His characters are always realizing, comically, that their assumed enemies are actually their disguised advocates. The Man Who Was Thursday is in no way Chesterton’s attempt to simplify or resolve the complications of the unanswered overflow, but it is a reassurance that we can remain joyfully human and rest in faith.

For Fans Of: The Castle by Franz Kafka, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, The Stranger by Albert Camus

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”


Over at The Classic’s Club they like to publish a “Monthly Meme”, a monthly blogging prompt question for the member to participate in. This months question is

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”

I’ll provide my answer and ask you guys to feel free to do the same!

If you’ve been reading this blog then you know that I like to play fast and loose with terms like “classic”. Maurice Sendak is classic, Orson Scott Card is classic, Neil Gaiman is classic. In the same way I’m gonna bend the rules in defining my idea of a “literary period” as well. I ask for immense grace on the part of the reader.

I’m not really a fan of any one particular genre or period in which great work has been done; my tastes span just about every style from every time period. However, if I had to choose one time period as being great for the arts, I would choose 1914 to 1945. That is to say, the time frame from the beginning of The Great War to the end of World War II.

It is a hard truth to swallow, but war encourages good art. War encouraged better politics, better philosophy, better religion, and better culture. Are these worth the price? They probably never could be, but for some reason we need war to sharpen our ideas into feasible, real-world scenarios. I use the word “need” here not as an absolute belief but based on cyclical, historic evidence.

War takes the extreme ideals of young men and forces upon them (and everyone else) the costs and consequences of those ideas. Throughout history cultures have come to radical political and philosophical conclusions and have seen them tested in action through various political upheavals. A world-wide war has the unique sobering effect of drastically changing and solidifying the most earnest opinions at the very heart of every man. The World Wars and the time between them were an era of intense and costly trial and error, a time when every man and women, whether identified now as aggressor, defender, or victim, was drastically solidified in a frame of mind that would haunt or direct the remainder of his or her earthly experience. Grandiose philosophical and political ideals would eventually be pulverized into crippling fear, stunning bravery, blinding hatred, and inspiring forgiveness and understanding. All of the destruction wreaked resulted very clearly in artistic revolutions of all kinds.

Concerning World War I, I think literarally of D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and T.S. Eliot among dozens of others. These are not necessarily known for war literature, but war imposed itself upon and transformed all in their craft. I consider C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, destined to be friends as both fought through some of the most bloody and unsurvivable experiences of The Great War. Both lost most of their dearest friends, and even their more whimsical works are depicted with the sobriety of a man who has wrestled with war first-hand.

I consider the upheaved, unsettled time between the wars and the seemingly unavoidable onset of the Second World War. Another generation of men and women are rocked to their very cores, including Lee, Capote, Salinger, Vonnegut, Wouk, Mailer, and Lois Lowry among an entire generation in transition. Most rebelled against society at large, unable to cope with the unforeseen impacts that continue to ripple through culture today.

I especially think of the story of Ernest Hemmingway, already a revered author and now a war correspondent, meeting for drinks with a then-undiscovered J.D. Salinger, in a little house near the frontline in the midst of WWII. Young Salinger had carried a rough draft of the first six chapters of what would become The Catcher In The Rye stuffed in his jacket since before he landed on the beaches on D-Day and he had somehow found time to write and submit short stories to magazines from on the frontline. He had already built up a bit of a reputation with Hemmingway, and they spent a hearty evening together, drinking wine through the cold winter night and discussing the quality of Salinger’s work and literature in general. Before dawn they separated once more, and from what we know had very little interaction thereafter. Eventually, the elder would turn into a severe alcoholic before committing suicide, while the younger would seek solace in mystic religion and half a century of extreme reclusion.

While it can feel trite to explore the literary implications of the most destructive periods in world history, our art has more to say than anything else when we look to see how the minds of men are molded by these terrors. The lives of these artists, perhaps more so than their art at times, display the coping of humanity with unspeakable confusion. Some we find doubly moored to the foundations they already claimed, other finding some source of respite in the aftermath. So many others we find spiraling without answer, creating in the constant wake of the thousand-yard stare.

Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem


While I have mentioned him here in passing, I must now go on record stating that Wendell Berry is my favorite living sage thinker. He takes the practical steps to live exactly what he believes. His life is an inspiration in its thought-out-and-acted-upon simplicity. He is a Kentucky farm boy, turned scholar and poet, turned university professor, turned cultural and political activist, turned farmer. While I would highly encourage you to dive into his essays, poetry, open letters, and novels, I am more eager that you delve deeper into his personal story.

While I would still consider myself a novice in his work, I always come back to one poem in particular. I have read and loved some of his short stories and his novel Hannah Coulter, and Jayber Crow is on my 55 Classic’s List. I have read many of his open letters and essays, and Bring It To The Table has also made its way into the 55.

Even with all this great material, I am most impressed by his poem “How To Be a Poet”.

How To Be a Poet
BY WENDELL BERRY
(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.