"Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world?"
Things are not as they seem. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, and it reminded me of something I wrote several years back on G. K Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. That book was a crazy ride. I concluded that it was a perfectly sane satire of our own insanity. What else would you expect from the subtitle: A Nightmare? But one of my biggest take-aways that still sticks with me is that nothing is as it seems. Here were my first reflections upon reading it:
The story is set up with a debate between an anarchist, Lucian Gregory (“that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem”), and the poet Gabriel Syme. These two very different men end up making a pact to keep one another’s secret after Gregory makes Syme an offer that “is far too idiotic to be declined.” There’s some double agent spy work going on, but I don’t want to reveal all the details. Eventually, we are led to the Council of Days. There are seven men on the Central Anarchist Council, and each man is named after a day of the week. Currently they are planning to assassinate the Russian Czar and the President of the French Republic in Paris.
I won’t give away anymore of the plot because the book is full of action-filled suspense. But I will say that the book is filled with allegory, and it’s one of those where the reader can pull out all sorts of their own interpretations—kind of like a nightmare. I think that each “day” of the Council may represent different parts of humanity that need to be redeemed—philosophy, science, the arts, reason, social power, and emotion. While dying to turn each page of this thriller, I had to pause and reflect on themes such as chaos verses law, optimism and pessimism, nihilism, materialism, monogamy, fellowship, and hospitality.
The poetic reflections of Gabriel Syme add clues to the mystery while also causing the reader to have their own musings. Here was my favorite:
“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—“ (178).
What leads up to this revelation is both hilarious and deep. Although you can read this book as an unbeliever and be thoroughly entertained, this is such a Christian message. If we don’t see the world with Sunday as the first day of the week, all we see is the back of everything. We are mere reactors to history. We work and labor for a rest that eludes us. But when we know Christ, the vision of the future is opened up. We see the front. We have a face. And we first rest in the Ultimate Reconciliation before we can really serve with vigor. All of the sudden, even the absurdities that often occur in life find their home. The destructiveness of false ideas is left naked and exposed. The masks have no adhesive.
C.S. Lewis must have been inspired by this book for his Till We Have Faces, but that would lead me to a whole other article. Chesterton jokingly referred to this nightmarish genre of his as a very melodramatic sort of moonshine. I say, pour me another!