The Man Who Was Thursday, read by Geoffrey Palmer

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"Are you the new recruit?" asked a heavy voice.

And in some strange way, though there was not the shadow of a shape in the gloom, Syme knew two things: first, that it came from a man of massive stature; and second, that the man had his back to him.

"Are you the new recruit?" said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. "All right. You are engaged."

Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.

"I really have no experience," he began.

"No one has any experience," said the other, "of the Battle of Armageddon."

"But I am really unfit--"

"You are willing, that is enough," said the unknown.

"Well, really," said Syme, "I don't know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test."

"I do," said the other--"martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day."

Although this book makes few obvious references to Christianity, its message of people struggling to uphold truth in a world consumed by relativism made me see for the first time that Christianity -- far from being boring and conformist -- could be exciting and oppositional.

Earlier this year, BBC Radio 4 Extra rebroadcast G. K. Chesterton's classic 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. I captured the series of 13 half-hour episodes for later listening and just finished it. Radio 4 Extra, which mines the BBC archives for comedy, drama, and sci-fi, often runs dramatizations of classic novels, but this was different. Except for a few seconds of dramatic strings and mournful horns at the beginning and end of each episode, it was just actor Geoffrey Palmer reading the story, unabridged, without sound effects or the assistance of other actors -- nothing but Chesterton's words and Palmer's vocal inflections -- and it was gripping. I hated for it to end.


Oklahoma BritCom fans will know Palmer in his role as the curmudgeonly Lionel Hardcastle, the male lead opposite Judi Dench in the long-running romantic sitcom As Time Goes By. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Palmer uses a variety of vocal characterizations to bring to life the story's unforgettable characters: the story's protagonist, Gabriel Syme, the "poet of respectability"; the "anarchic poet" Lucian Gregory; the pessimistic Inspector Ratcliffe; Gogol "the common dynamiter"; the wry-mouthed Secretary; the decrepit Prof. de Worms; Dr. Bull of the blackguardly spectacles; the valiant Col. de la Croix; and the enigmatic President of the Council of Anarchists, Sunday.

While I had read the book some years ago, hearing it read aloud and with expression called my attention to passages that I had glossed over before. To avoid spoiling any of the topsy-turvy plot, I won't identify the speaker or the context, but the words stand by themselves as an indication of how ancient is the Culture War that continues to rage, how long the forces of destruction have been attacking the foundations of our civilization.

"This is the situation: The head of one of our departments, one of the most celebrated detectives in Europe, has long been of opinion that a purely intellectual conspiracy would soon threaten the very existence of civilisation. He is certain that the scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State. He has, therefore, formed a special corps of policemen, policemen who are also philosophers. It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense....

"We deny the snobbish English assumption that the uneducated are the dangerous criminals. We remember the Roman Emperors. We remember the great poisoning princes of the Renaissance. We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fulness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people's."

"How true that is," he cried. "I have felt it from my boyhood, but never could state the verbal antithesis. The common criminal is a bad man, but at least he is, as it were, a conditional good man. He says that if only a certain obstacle be removed--say a wealthy uncle--he is then prepared to accept the universe and to praise God. He is a reformer, but not an anarchist. He wishes to cleanse the edifice, but not to destroy it. But the evil philosopher is not trying to alter things, but to annihilate them. Yes, the modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious, the harrying of the poor, the spying upon the unfortunate. It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else."...

"This is a vast philosophic movement, consisting of an outer and an inner ring. You might even call the outer ring the laity and the inner ring the priesthood. I prefer to call the outer ring the innocent section, the inner ring the supremely guilty section. The outer ring--the main mass of their supporters--are merely anarchists; that is, men who believe that rules and formulas have destroyed human happiness. They believe that all the evil results of human crime are the results of the system that has called it crime. They do not believe that the crime creates the punishment. They believe that the punishment has created the crime. They believe that if a man seduced seven women he would naturally walk away as blameless as the flowers of spring. They believe that if a man picked a pocket he would naturally feel exquisitely good. These I call the innocent section....

"Naturally, therefore, these people talk about 'a happy time coming'; 'the paradise of the future'; 'mankind freed from the bondage of vice and the bondage of virtue,' and so on. And so also the men of the inner circle speak--the sacred priesthood. They also speak to applauding crowds of the happiness of the future, and of mankind freed at last. But in their mouths.... in their mouths these happy phrases have a horrible meaning. They are under no illusions; they are too intellectual to think that man upon this earth can ever be quite free of original sin and the struggle. And they mean death. When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave.

"They have but two objects, to destroy first humanity and then themselves. That is why they throw bombs instead of firing pistols. The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody."

As I was finishing the last few episodes of the series, I saw the news of Gawker's impending demise, which sent me back through the archives to look for my Gawker Five Questions interview with Andrew Krucoff, which had come about because Dawn Eden invited me to come as her guest to a Gawker party a few days before the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, where I met Australian columnist Tim Blair, Matt Welch of Reason magazine, and Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette. Dawn bumped into Krucoff, who had interviewed her a few days earlier, as we arrived, and she introduced us, which led to the interview.

It was in rereading Dawn's interview that I found the above quote, which I had vaguely remembered. In another interview, she spoke about how she had come to read the book and the role it played in leading her to faith in Christ:

And one thing that was a major door opener for me was when I was 27, back in December '95, and I was doing a phone interview with a man named Ben Eshbach, who was the lead singer for a Los Angeles band named "The Sugarplastic" not a religious rock band. And I thought I would ask him something unrelated to his music, so I asked, what was he reading lately, and he said, "The Man Who Was Thursday" by G.K. Chesterton, and I had never heard the name before and thought it was one of those quant English names like P.G. Wodehouse, or something, so I went to the bookstore and picked it up thinking was going to be reading about Jeeves and Wooster or something. And then, to my surprise, I realized that this novel had a Christian message, but more than that, it presented the faith in a way I had never seen it before.

Because I had assumed that Christians were just this white bread, Moral Majority, faceless, conformist, mass, they all ruled the world, and that for me to be this rock and roll hipster rebel, I had to be different from them. And what Chesterton put forth, is that there is false rebellion and true rebellion, and the false rebellion is essentially to be a rebel without a cause. The rebelling for the sake of rebelling. True rebelling was the rebelling against the evil that has its grip on the world, so that the Christian is the true rebel. Chesterton also said this in Orthodoxy, when he said words to the effect that Christianity is the only religion where God, in order to be a King, must also be a rebel.

She elaborated on the nature of this true and false rebellion in an interview in the Dallas Observer:

"So I picked up this novel, and I realized not only was it an exciting novel of the kind that I really liked -- it reminded me of my childhood love of Lewis Carroll and of whimsy -- but this also had an adult plot. I picked up fairly quickly that there was something going on beneath the surface, and I realized that it was about two kinds of rebellion. The rebellion of the anarchist, which is the rebellion that just seeks to destroy without building up--just rebellion for rebellion's sake. And the second kind was the rebellion of beauty and truth against a fallen and dark world.

"I realized that the first kind of rebellion, Chesterton was saying, was the false rebellion, and the second kind was the true rebellion. And Chesterton thought the true rebellion was Christian. Reading that and realizing that I myself had gone through life identifying with the anarchists, the false rebels, I felt like a poseur.

The BBC/Geoffrey Palmer version of the book doesn't appear to be officially available anywhere at the moment (that link will allow you to listen for a month or so after the BBC next rebroadcasts it), but you can read The Man Who Was Thursday online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. If you want a Virgil to guide you along the way, Tulsa native Martin Gardner, the famed author of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, produced an annotated edition. An essay by Gardner about the novel in Books and Culture is available online, behind a paywall.

(I'm aware that there is a recently-released indy film with the same title, but after seeing the trailer and reading some reviews, it's become clear that at most the filmmaker can claim to have been inspired by the novel, even though it seems that he failed to understand it.)


David Mills offers a recommended reading list for the newly minted Chesterton fan.

Something you can listen to on Radio 4 Extra right now: The original version of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which was a radio comedy before it became a series of novels.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 21, 2016 12:09 AM.

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