Monday, July 17, 2006

The Man Who Was Thursday - Chap. 9 & 10

Introductory Remarks

[CORRECTION] The post has been edited to reflect that it does in fact discuss Chapters 9 and 10. Thanks for the heads-up, Chris. [/CORRECTION]

The conversation, although not what I'd hoped it would be, is still going on, and there's still a chance to get aboard. Kudos to Joe, who has done just that. Check out his worthy comments, better late than never, down below.

At this point, there are only five chapters left in the book. We'll have the next two chapters due a week from today, and take the last three as a group. Looking ahead, that seems to be the best breakdown. Happy reading!

Discussion Points

1) In terms of plot and philosophy, I didn't regard too much in Chapters 9 or 10 to be particularly worthy of note. So the discussion is open.

2) I would like to comment on the artfulness of one section from Chapter 9, which struck a chord with me:
Syme was increasingly conscious that his new adventure had somehow a quality of cold sanity worse than the wild adventures of the past. Last night, for instance, the tall tenements had seemed to him like a tower in a dream. As he now went up the weary and perpetual steps, he was daunted and bewildered by their almost infinite series. But it was not the hot horror of a dream or of anything that might be exaggeration or delusion. Their infinity was more like the empty infinity of arithmetic, something unthinkable, yet necessary to thought. Or it was like the stunning statements of astronomy about the distance of the fixed stars. He was ascending the house of reason, a thing more hideous than unreason itself.
In the next paragraph, Chesterton makes a reference to the French Revolution. The same war comes up in the next chapter as well. It was a period of history which fascinated Chesterton (and also myself). I can't help but think that Chesterton's remarking how the "house of reason" is more hideous than unreason itself can be very appropriately read in light of such an event as the French Revolution. For more on that period of history, check out our last book club discussion.

Chesterton was a great admirer of Thomas Aquinas, so certainly not opposed to reason. But you might say he has a bone to pick with Rationalism. He certainly is no fan of the Enlightenment or of Empiricism. He's far too much a poet for that. I've had ambivalent feelings about Syme so far in the book, and they only grow more defined as the work progresses. I don't think Chesterton was totally "behind" Syme in his initially crafted defense of order and the predictable. As Joe points out in his comments on chapter one, there is, after all, something unpredictable in what is more predictable. Chesterton was "surprised" to find the grass green every morning. I think the reason he has thrown Syme into this adventure is to perhaps save him from being too much a rationalist - to save him of the errors of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Robespierre.

I'm rambling a bit, solet me try to sum it up: there's a biblical passage which I've always somehow felt is akin in its spirit to the "programme" of Chesterton. Thinking about what we've read, consider Paul's words to the Church in Corinth:
Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Any thoughts?

3) Chapter 10: Another very "fun" chapter, at least in the beginning. I still can't help picturing Chesterton at his type-writer, convulsing in a full body laugh with each further push of the envelope of believability. So, my question is, how do you find his pushing of this envelope? Shall we say, a la Chesterton, "really, sir, I must protest - isn't this a bit much?" Or is it a good time?

4) Another paragraph I thought noteworthy:
He felt a strange and vivid value in all the earth around him, in the grass under his feet; he felt the love of life in all living things. He could almost fancy that he heard the grass growing; he could almost fancy that even as he stood fresh flowers were springing up and breaking into blossom in the meadow—flowers blood red and burning gold and blue, fulfilling the whole pageant of the spring. And whenever his eyes strayed for a flash from the calm, staring, hypnotic eyes of the Marquis, they saw the little tuft of almond tree against the sky‑line. He had the feeling that if by some miracle he escaped he would be ready to sit for ever before that almond tree, desiring nothing else in the world.
A bit romantic, we might think. But still, rather a beautiful thought. I've made comparisons oftentimes before, and I'll make one again: I was reminded of Tolkien. His heros always reach a similar aestheticism in their moments of crisis (excepting Frodo's last journey in Mordor, but that's different for several reasons.) Any thoughts on this unique spiritualism of heros at the brink of hell?

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4 Comments:

Blogger Friguy said...

The British character of the nightmare has been unmistakable throughout, yet perhaps nowhere so ticklish to the American ear as in these lines: "Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?" Quite a playful turn of phrase.

Another sentence that I had to reread was this: "Syme plunged into the breach with that bravado of improvisation which always came to him when he was alarmed." If the art of wordsmithing could be absorbed, I would bathe in this sentence. Chesterton takes a highly internal human experience and makes it tanigible, active, nearly 3-D. Who among us hasn't been overcome by the stupid swell of a momentary courage inspired by fear? What a very personal experience the author has made public!

Syme's entry into conversation with the Marquis is marvelous, proving that the graceful history of ebonical speech is at least a century old. How absurd is it that a duel essentially grew out of the argumentative interrogative of an inebriated policeman: "What did you say about my mother?" In modern speak: "What you say 'bout my mama, fool?" Ebonics--timeless?

My pastor preached today about the prophets, underscoring the difference between true prophets and that which we now call prophetic. Moses, Elijah, Deborah, and the like stand quite contrary to most modern "prophets." I don't know what to think then, of the following paragraph from the nightmare:

"Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character. They were (as he said of his impulse about the spectacles) poetic intuitions, and they sometimes rose to the exaltation of prophecy."

If nothing else, the lines are admirable for their persistent "s" sounds. But, beyond literary beauty, at what is Chesterton getting? He acknowledges the exalted status of real prophecy, yet he ascribes it to a character of whom no current evidence would indicate anything extraordinary in such regard. Perhaps the answer lies in the allegory. At this point, I am not seeing any overarching, one-to-one allegorical connections between the text and anything. But, is Syme tantamount, somehow, to a prophet?

A line of related significance describes the start of the duel: "When the jar of the joined iron ran up Syme's arm, all the fantastic fears that have been the subject of this story fell from him like dreams from a man waking up in bed." What fears? Is that dreams, like in a "nightmare," which form the novel has taken? The Brit seems to take a third-person stance here for a moment, speaking of "this story." Why does he do that, here and nowhere else? Is this the beginning of the allegory's unravelling? Are there any sense-makers out there?

The most consequential philosophic thought of these two chapters, I believe, comes in the middle of the duel, when Syme thinks to himself: "I am more than a devil; I am a man. I can do the one thing which Satan himself cannot do--I can die." We do not often think of death as power. As Christians, we account for death as a gain; gain, however, does not imply power. Death as power, therefore, is new, fertile ground for my own meditation.

7/17/06, 10:52 PM  
Anonymous Chris L said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7/20/06, 4:51 PM  
Anonymous Chris L said...

I do not have much to add to the discussion, just a few thoughts.

The scene in which Syme insist that the Marquis insulted is Aunt is one the most amusing things I have read in a long time. It demonstrates Chesterton comic genius well.

Another thought was provoked by Chesterton saying that colors of Dr. Bulls complexion expanded outrageously "as such things grow too important in a realistic novel" It made me pause and considers Chesterton’s artful descriptions throughout the book. I believe we have all at one time have read a description that seems to stretch on for pages for no clear reason, or at the opposite end read something where the setting was inadequately described. Chesterton through this novel seems to always maintain the perfect balance. His descriptions are wonderful. One short example:
"Then they made there way across the river, which under the grey and growing light looked as desolate as Acheron. They reached the bottom of huge block of buildings and began in silence to mount the naked and numberless stone steps" His descriptions in this scene for example paint a picture but also evoke other senses, allowing the reader to see and feel the environment, all without being to verbose.

7/21/06, 4:51 PM  
Blogger Joey G. said...

Only a few (and brief) comments to make. First of all, I agree with Dave that as the "criminals" dwindle, the allegory is getting a little more thinly disguised, which is certainly intentional on the part of the author.

Secondly, as for the "prophet" thing. I think Chesterton would have had, like us, a different understanding of prophetic personhood than the world at large. That is, he would definately acknowledge the Old Testament prophets who were, kind of, career prophets. However, he knew that their prophecy was not what most people make prophecy out to be. They didn't simply predict the future (if at all). Rather, they saw the extensions of present circumstances, and the important consequences that that might result from them. It is noteworthy that Syme's "prophetic" understanding is here more of this sort than of the sort people popularly imagine, with chrystal balls and such. Syme is intuitive and perceptive in much the same way as a poet is insightful. [This comparison, Chesterton's and not mine, is very important, I think. Remember Shakespeare: "The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; and, as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives airy nothing a local habitation and a name." (Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream)]

This point is the only place to date that I would really disagree with David. For it is this comparison which I think is the most consequential philosophical insight of these two chapters. But, to each his own. I am, probably, a little biased in this regard.

7/23/06, 7:23 PM  

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